For Valentines Day, my husband gave me a weekend escape to a Bed & Breakfast in Minnesota. I know, right? He’s pretty special, and an incredible gift-giver. He really just seems to know what kind of gift will be absolutely perfect. And he understands my love of “experiences” over things. This was an incredible gift, because it combined my love of history and all things “old”, with a fun weekend getaway. He nailed it.
He booked it in February, then printed out the details and wrapped them up for me to open on Valentines Day. Minnesota in February is not ideal, and since I’m a teacher, summer is when we have time to do stuff like this. So, I had a long time to look forward to it!
We headed out mid-morning on the first day. We have recently done a lot of landscaping and planting at our new home, so we had some serious watering to do before we could be gone for 3 days. Plus, check-in time at the B&B wasn’t until 3, so we weren’t in a super big hurry.
The B&B is in Winona, Minnesota, which was an easy drive of about 4 hours or so. It was a sunny day, and so it was a lovely drive, sipping coffee, talking, enjoying the scenic view of rolling Iowa cornfields, dotted with old barns and farmhouses. Day-to-day life can be so hectic, with both of us having busy and demanding careers, 4 kids between us, and all the other things life dishes out. So weekends like this are perfect, because as soon as we pull out of the driveway, it’s liking pushing the pause button. All that stuff on my to-do list gets set aside, all the “tabs” that are constantly open in my brain shut down, and I can just relax for a few days.
We arrived at The Alexander Mansion around 3:30, I think. We had a bit of trouble finding it, because it was set behind a stone wall with a wrought iron fence atop it, and was quite overgrown with vines and branches. We drove right past it a few times, back and forth, before we realized it was behind all that vegetation! It was a bit sad, actually, because the grounds could have been so much more beautiful if a little more attention had been given to gardening.
However, as soon as I stepped inside, all of that was forgotten, because the mansion itself was stunning. Here’s what their website says about the history of the mansion: “The Alexander Mansion, circa 1886, is one of the most impressive Victorian homes you will ever find. Originally built for a local judge, Thomas Wilson, the house is masterfully constructed in early Winona’s turn-of-the-century lumber baron style, which showcases exceptional woodwork and architectural details. The Alexander family lived in the home for fifty-plus years and the bed and breakfast now aptly bears their name.”
I was mesmerized by all the original woodwork, the massive staircase, the fireplace in the foyer, the library opening off to the left….I’m pretty sure my jaw was hanging open.
After getting settled in our room, we came downstairs to the library, where other guests of the mansion were gathered. Richard, the proprietor, was serving wine, so of course we accepted a glass and sat down amongst all the incredible period furniture and antiques. We chatted a bit with a lovely couple also staying that night–she was a retired teacher from the University of Minnesota. Richard offered dinner suggestions for each couple, and even helped arrange reservations for both nights of our stay. After finishing up our wine, we headed upstairs to get ready for dinner.
Hillside Fish House Restaurant
Because of my love of history, Richard suggested the Hillside Fish House for dinner on our first night. And wow, does it have some history! Here is what their website says about its long and rich past:
“The Hillside Fish House, originally called The Marshland House, was built as a railroad junction hotel to accommodate the crews and passengers from the railroads. Local Indians brought walleye and game to trade for other necessities which The Marshland House served to their guests. In fact, as recent as the 1980’s local fishermen would sell their fresh catch to the restaurant. Over the years, the place gained a reputation for serving good food, particularly walleye pike.
Many locals recall stories from their elders who traveled to Winona via the old wagon bridge that connected Wisconsin with Minnesota. These travelers would stop at the Hillside to warm their foot bricks in the fireplace and enjoy a good meal on their way home. In the early 1900’s, The Marshland House was sold to the Losinski family, who changed the name to The Hillside Tavern, then eventually The Hillside Fish House. Various members of the Losinski family operated the Hillside until the early 1990’s when it was purchased by Tony Grenier.
Today, Tony Grenier and the staff at the Hillside proudly continue the tradition of hospitality established by the original owners. The building is small and has it’s limitations, but it is the original building that has been in continuous operation for more than 150 years.”
They are known for their walleye, so of course that’s what we ordered. You can have it prepared a variety of different ways, but we opted for simply pan sauteed. This place is nothing super fancy, but it was good food, and interesting history. We really enjoyed it.
After a satisfying meal, we headed back to the mansion. We were greeted with turn down service that included two nightcaps of Irish Cream and chocolate.
Of course, my hubby booked the Durand Alexander Master Suite, the biggest room in the house, so we had a large bedroom with a huge attached sunroom, and private bath with original fixtures from the 1920s when the Alexanders updated the home. Maude Alexander, the lady of the home, had her own equally lovely, but more feminine, master suite which was attached by a private corridor adjoining our room (it was locked and screwed shut for privacy, as other guests were using that room). There are a total of 7 bedrooms in this home, and 7.5 bathrooms– very luxurious for 1886 when most people were still using outhouses!
The Alexander Mansion Bed & Breakfast promises a “gourmet 4-course breakfast intended to spoil”, so we arose the next morning and headed down to the incredible dining room at the scheduled time of 9 am. We were joined by three other couples also staying at the inn, all of whom were retired and much older than us, including the couple we had met the night prior, over wine in the library. That is part of the charm of staying at a B&B–meeting new people, all with different stories. However, this type of breakfast is not a slow process, so if you’re in a hurry to get your day started, or if you enjoy more private “couple time”, a B&B may not be ideal. Our weekend trip to KC gave us the opportunity to wake on our own timeframe, eat when we were ready, and be in our own quiet little “bubble” of just the two of us.
All 8 of us were seated at the large Victorian dining table, with Richard, our host, assigning our seats and graciously pulling out the chairs for each of the ladies. The meal began with coffee or tea, in lovely vintage tea cups, followed by fresh squeezed orange juice (with just a drop of Watkins vanilla) in champagne flutes.
The first course was a fruit parfait.
After the guests had plenty of time to sip coffee, chat, tell stories, and finish their parfaits, the next course arrived. Fresh baked blueberry bread. Richard told us he had a friend who did all the baking for him, and he had been up since 4 am making sure it was warm from the oven.
Next was the main entree– an egg frittata with a variety of organic veggies. It was perfection.
And finally, the last course was….an ice cream sundae! Apparently it’s a tradition at the mansion. Richard came out with a notepad, went around the table one by one, and took orders of exactly how we wanted our sundaes topped—hot fudge, caramel, nuts, whipped cream, cinnamon……I think everyone at our table ordered it differently!
This whole process took more than 2 hours. It was enjoyable listening to stories about generations gone by from all the couples dining with us who kept calling us the “kids”. All of the other couples were in their 70s, with one couple in their early 80s! Even Richard, the owner, was in his 70s. But it was fun. I like history and meeting new people with interesting backgrounds. However, it was A LOT of food, especially for breakfast. I’m more of a coffee and yogurt kinda person in the morning. I don’t think I finished any of the various courses completely. Even Mark was stuffed. Although it actually ended up working out well, because both mornings of our stay, we left breakfast so full that no lunch was needed. We stayed full right through to dinnertime!
By the time breakfast was over, it was past 11am, so we headed out to our adventure for the day. Winona, Minnesota is right on the Mississippi River, and crossing the bridge takes you into Wisconsin. So, we ventured into LaCrosse, Wisconsin for a paddlewheel riverboat tour down the Mississippi on the LaCrosse Queen.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we really enjoyed the views along the way.
The river cruise was about 3 hours long. After it was over, we headed into the cute little historic area of downtown LaCrosse that was nearby. We stopped in a coffee shop for an iced coffee and then walked around the corner to The Antique Center that Richard had told us about after learning my love of all things “old”.
We browsed for awhile, but didn’t buy anything. I did see this cutie, though. Who remembers Mrs. Beasley? I had this doll as a very young child. I think I got her for my 2nd or 3rd birthday! No, I didn’t buy it. 🙂
As we headed back to Winona, we saw a sign for a historic look out point, so we took a detour and headed that way. That’s one of the things I love most about this kind of getaway–you can just go where the wind takes you. No plans set in stone and no tight agenda.
We ventured to the top of Grandad’s Bluff for some great views.
Then headed back to the mansion to get ready for our dinner reservation. This time at Signature’s Golf Club. Richard had let us know that while our dinner at Hillside Fish House had been more casual, this restaurant was more upscale.
Again, Richard was right. The food was fabulous, the views of the golf course were lovely, the grounds and gardens were beautiful.
After we ate, we enjoyed a look around the restaurant. It’s called Signatures, because it has an impressive collection of autographed photos and memorabilia–the Beatles, Lucille Ball, Elvis Presley, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon….hundreds lining their walls. It’s like a small museum. Sadly, I neglected to snap any pictures of these because I was too absorbed in looking. 🙂
It was on the late side and we’d had a full day by the time we finished, so we headed back to the mansion to enjoy some relaxation in our room. Richard had showed me a scrapbook he had made of the history of the mansion, and allowed me to take it to our room to look it. It was so fun to see all the old pictures of the very room we were sleeping in, from over 100 years ago.
The next morning, we were treated to an amazing breakfast similar to the day before. The bread was pumpkin spice this time and the main entree a quiche if I recall, but all equally as delicious. New guests had arrived the evening before, and this time we were joined by 3 ladies who were in town for a retirement party of a friend, and one young lady, probably in her early 30s, who was on a solo journey to North Dakota from D.C. and used the mansion as her stopping point halfway. It was nice to have new conversations and new stories. 🙂
After breakfast, we gathered our things, took one more look around the beauty of the mansion, and then headed out. We didn’t go far, just around the corner to the J.R. Watkins Museum and offices. From looking at Richard’s scrapbook the evening before, I had learned that the Alexanders, who lived in the mansion the longest, had strong ties to the Watkins spices company. Maude Alexander was the step-daughter of J.R. Watkins and her husband Durand Alexander eventually became senior vice president of the company in the 1920s. Maude wrote cookbooks for Watkins (even though she had a household staff of 7, so probably didn’t do a lot of the cooking herself). From Richard I learned that she did most of the writing in the sunroom attached to our suite. She traveled the world in search of spices for the company. She was career woman with her own mind back in a time period when that wasn’t necessarily the norm. So, we had to look around at the Watkins Museum, since we’d been staying in the Alexander’s home.
Finally, on our way out of town, we made a brief stop at a local antique shop. We purchased a vintage bottle from Watkins Vanilla c.1930. It has a cork in the top!
I wanted a Watkin’s Cookbook because Richard had one on display that was actually signed by Maude, but I didn’t find one. It’s on “my list” though. Someday I’ll come across one.
After picking up an iced coffee for the road, we were on our way home. Thanks so my hubby and his talent for choosing the perfect gift, we had a great weekend.